PAUL SALEM: I welcome our guests here. Our guest has written a lot on climate change, the Arab world, Islamists, and has focused on Iraqi elections. I am PAUL SALEM, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. MARINA OTTAWAY is the Washington based director of the Carnegie Middle East Program.
MARINA OTTAWAY: The elections in Iraq are going to have a considerable impact on the withdrawal of the US troops. It is a very significant domestic issue in Washington now. If the elections do not go well it would have an impact on Obama’s policies. He is going to start withdrawing the troops from Iraq gradually.
The situation is very complex. At the same time, there have been some real distortions in the US, in the way the elections have been portrayed. If we are going to understand the way the elections are held, we need to understand the dynamics of the process.
Most of the information comes from the Iraqi and Pan-Arab newspapers that follow the coalitions very closely. The composition of these various alliances is very complex and very little information is really emerging in the West.
One should keep in mind that the belief that Baghdad has turned a corner away from confessional politics is only wishful thinking. There is no doubt, except for the Kurds, that Iraqi politics is confessional politics. But there is no significant Kurdish presence in the alliances. The alliances are multi-confessional to the extent that there are some elements of each sect within each group. However, each group remains dominated by a certain confession.
Let’s see those.
The Iraqi national movement is the most multi-confessional movement. It is an unnatural movement between Ayad Allawi and Mutlaq. Mutlaq is an Arab Sunni Nationalist. He does not try to hide that.
Ayad Allawi, part of this alliance, is actually a man of all seasons. He tries to project this image that he is a secularist. He does not have much credibility in Iraq. Judging on the results of previous elections, he is not very popular either. In Washington he does not have much credibility either… These alliances are still extremely confessional in nature. We are not sure these alliances are going to last after the elections.
The various alliances have not had to present their candidates’ lists yet. For the time being, there is a lot of discussion and names can still change. There is nobody I have spoken to that believes that these alliances are going to last after the elections. After the election’s results come in, there is going to be another round of discussions for the composition of the government. We are looking at an extremely fluid situation at this point.
One of the major issues in the elections, and afterwards, is how the Sunnis are trying to position themselves in this arrangement.
The Sunnis will come out as the losers in this process. They are a minority and not a cohesive minority. The Kurds know and accept that they are twenty percent of the population. They are also aware that they have to stick together. Although they have different political parties, they are sticking together during elections.
I use the word autonomy of Kurdistan and not semi-autonomy, because if Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region then I would wonder what an autonomous region really is!
Contrary to the Kurds, the Sunnis of Iraq do not accept that they are a minority. The last census in Iraq was in 1957. All the population estimates are based on the census conducted in 1957. Based on those numbers, the Sunnis were a majority. Saddam’s regime changed many factors.
First, ration counts are the best counts. People do register for the rations. Sunnis are too proud to register for food rations. That’s why they oppose the ration count system.
Second, Sunnis are not as concentrated in designated areas as the Shiia and Kurds. The Sunnis see themselves as part of the entire country as opposed to belonging to a part of Iraq.
Third, Sunnis are extremely divided amongst themselves. Sunnis in the parliament are represented by two groups. The first was a coalition that included the major Islamist parties. The Tawafouk included Iraqi Islamist movements. Tawafouk has dissolved because no one wants to work with Islamic parties. It has become an extremely controversial group. Less because it is Islamic, but because major Sunni figures are not represented in this group anymore.
Tawafouk has lost important people that are part of other parties. The Sunnis are likely to come out of the elections feeling underrepresented another time. The issue of Sunni underrepresentation has played a major role in the constitutional battle.
In this battle for elections, there were two major obstacles. First, the issue of Kirkuk. They could not agree on Kirkuk’s status. They tried to solve the problem. They formed a committee in 2008 to decide who’s going to vote in Kirkuk. They failed! What prevented the agreement over Kirkuk were the population figures. The composition of the territory was unknown.
One party argued that the Kurdish parties stuffed people into Kirkuk and the Kurds said that they just allowed people, who were ejected during Saddam’s era, to return to Kirkuk.
The provisional authority, with no consideration of the reality on the ground, decided to set a commission to pave the way for the return of the people to Kirkuk. In a moment of madness, the US took the decision of the committee to settle people who said they were chased out of Kirkuk. This was an impossible administrative task. This process never took place.
The second issue that they dealt with was about who had the right to vote in provincial elections and who had the right to vote in the national elections: Who is going to vote in which province? This was the second problem which delayed the Election Law of 2010. In addition, another issue was over the number of seats allotted to each province.
The first election law, voted by Parliament in late November was vetoed by Vice-President Tariq Hashimi vetoed the election law. He felt that the Sunnis were underrepresented. Most of the Iraqis voting abroad were Sunnis. The more seats are set aside for Iraqi emigrants the more the Sunnis achieve better representation.
Another point is that in different regions there were different growth rates. There is no material basis for this assumption. In the distribution of seats, Sunnis did very well. The Arab province witnessed almost a fifty percent increase of seats. For the Kurds, they got almost no increase. It was a distribution which was very favorable for the Sunnis. However, Hashimi vetoed the law because of the Iraqi emigrants issue but it was like shooting oneself in the foot.
By vetoing the law, Hashimi gave Parliament a chance to rewrite it. Whatever biases existed before were transferred into the new law. The US entered into the negotiation process because Hashimi threatened to veto the second draft once again.
Finally, the Sunnis lost out all the special seats for exiles. Votes cast overseas are going to be counted as part of the provincial elections. The Sunnis do not get any special privilege.
As for the election date, the electoral commission has not decided on it yet. It is going to be in late February or in March. But obviously, this puts the country in a minor constitutional crisis. The law says that the elections need to be held 45 days before the expiration of the parliament’s mandate.
Postponing the elections would throw the country into a full constitutional violation because by February, the parliament’s mandate would have expired. The legitimacy of Prime Minister Maliki would expire as well.
Unless something else happens to slow down the election process, I think Iraqis need to avoid the constitutional crisis.
End of presentation.
PAUL SALEM: Thank you Marina. The floor is open to questions and I have a question to start with. In Lebanon, citizens’ registry is accurate… Does it exist in Iraq?
MARINA OTTAWAY: It is not clear.
PAUL SALEM: Did it exist during Saddam’s days?
MARINA OTTAWAY: The only figures that had any reliability were the 1957 census numbers. The food rations are very important but it could never be clear and extremely reliable… There is an assumption that food rations are so important because citizens have an interest in eating that everyone is registered.
PAUL SALEM: In most elections, leaders try to get back into power. The first election law was based on proportional representation per province. What does the second draft say?
MARINA OTTAWAY: The second draft says the figures used are those of 2005 plus 2.8%.
PAUL SALEM: Within that, how are the explosions that are taking place being interpreted?
MARINA OTTAWAY: The general interpretation says that PM Maliki cannot maintain order. However, we cannot go to say that anyone else could do a better job. Some people say let’s keep Maliki because he has better external support. If you look at the list we have there, it is not terribly impressive.
AMAL BOUBEKEUR: What about the boycott initiatives? Is there pressure on citizens to boycott the elections?
MARINA OTTAWAY: If so and so joins the alliances people are threatening to boycott the vote… However, I do not think it is likely that Sunnis are going to boycott the elections. It is not to their advantage. I do not think that they are going to have an impact by boycotting the elections.
ANDREW NORTH, BBC journalist: How much of a risk do you think there is from the inevitable frustration? What are you hearing about Muqtada Al-Sadr? Since his movement was a Kingmaker, aren’t you following up on him closely?
MARINA OTTAWAY: Sadr is keeping a very low profile. We do not know what happened to the Mahdi Army. His constituency is still there and it is still part of the alliance. We still haven’t seen anything that allows us to answer the question. The danger is there and what I think is serious is that in terms of stability, Maliki was not able to attract other allies.
The Sunnis could have been king makers if they stuck together.
What could Sunnis achieve by turning back to violence? It is no longer the chaotic situation which existed after 2003. Violence is likely to continue occurring. Violence, which is really to the level of an existential threat to Iraq, is not likely to occur. However, I do not think that Iraq is likely to stay together in one piece. The Kurds are going to make a move if they do not receive their autonomy.
ROBERT NAOUSS: What do you think the priorities of Iran regarding the 2010 elections are? What does Iran wish for?
MARINA OTTAWAY: Iran can live with any of the outcomes. I think! I cannot say whether Iran would prefer Maliki over the national alliance. Iran has been careful to maintain good relations with all Shiia players and other ones as well.
What is the influence of Iran. Iran has provided support to various militias and Saudis have provided to many groups as well. But I cannot point to any decisions of the government that favors Iranian interests outright.
Finally, the US has got to withdraw from Iraq by the deadlines it had set. The decision to withdraw from Iraq is imperative for the US so it can increase its troops in Afghanistan.
PAUL SALEM: Any rough estimates where the results of the election might end up? Is there any rough sense what the range of outcomes could be seen?
One issue that was discussed in the past was whether elections should be held in an open or closed list system.
In an open list system, one can express a preference for a specific candidate. In an open list, one could vote for their preference, so people could be pushed down an electoral list. The Americans pushed for an open list. I think this is quite wrong! This is because Iraq is already fragmented and this scenario fragments it further.
I have not seen any estimates yet. We have not seen the election list presented by the various parties. We will really know what the alliances are when we see the various names of candidates. We can be pretty sure that there are not many Kurds that are going to vote for the Iraqi alliances.